Artist Baseera Khan on searching for meaning and identity


A handmade wool prayer rug, with materials imported from Kashmir, showcases bursts of color alongside political and religious imagery. Titled “Purple Heart,” it is indicative of Baseera Khan’s larger body of work.

“This was made in 2017 and was inspired by a couple things, among them the national controversy when the Nike corporation wouldn’t allow you to put the word ‘Muslim’ on custom sneakers,” says Khan. “In reaction, they started selling hijabs with the Nike logo on them.”

When it comes to the piece’s circles of color accented by blackness, Khan points out they’re references to the crescent moon.

“I was thinking about how most Islamophobia is usually generated through a need for resources,” Khan says, explaining what it’s designed to visually represent . “It’s all about America’s need to have ownership of those materials.”

The seemingly disparate but overall intertwining facets of “Purple Heart” are classic Khan. A rising force in the art world, their unique blend of economic, social, political and religious visual art has turned heads nationwide, whether as the recipient of the Brooklyn Museum’s second-ever UOVO Prize in 2020 or the winner of the BRIC Colene Art Prize as well as the Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Grant in 2019.

It’s safe to say that Khan is having a moment, and the Texas-born, New York City-dweller is enjoying her hot streak.

“They say if you can succeed in New York, you can succeed anywhere,” Khan explains, alluding to a rising stature in the Big Apple art scene. (Case in point: An upcoming solo exhibit at the aforementioned Brooklyn Museum). “I guess it’s true because I’m getting to have some cool shows.”

One of those shows, which launched April 10, marks Khan’s West Coast debut. It’s at Encinitas’ Lux Art Institute, where Khan has become the fourth artist in residence during Lux’s 14th annual season, called “A New Territory” an appropriate moniker in more ways than one.

“When I arrived, I saw this place, and it’s just so beautiful,” says Khan of the North County gallery where the exhibit will be on display until June 5. “It’s therapeutic in the sense that it’s so cute. The exhibition was even already up when I came in. Like, wow — I am used to doing this all by myself.”

Artist Baseera Khan's "Purple Heart," 2017

Artist Baseera Khan’s “Purple Heart,” 2017

(Courtesy of the artist and Simone Subal Gallery)

Shutting out the pain

If there’s ever a moment when a visual artist intent on raising awareness and advocacy would have fertile ground, you can’t choose a better time period than the past couple of years, the present moment very much included.

“It’s incredible that I happen to be creating at a time when everything is falling apart at the seams,” Khan says. “Especially when my work is somehow always about how economies create identity more than culture creates identity.”

You can take your pick of the strife sweeping America: the recent Trump presidency, the spate of police violence against Black people and resulting protests, the rise of racism against Asian Americans, the danger, and laws, that transgender people grapple with, the chipping away of voting rights. And in case you haven’t noticed, the world is also grappling with a once-in-a-century pandemic. As a Muslim and queer woman of Afghan and Indian descent, Khan is viewing everything through a unique lens.

When Khan takes a step back to look at it all, and how it relates to their own career and voice as an artist, they refer to this moment as a sort of Catch-22.

“I can think back to 9/11,” Khan says. “After that happened, we had a very fertile moment in art. During times of strife in history, people turn to art because nothing makes sense. So extraordinary things are happening, but at what cost?

“I try not to dwell in the past, but at the same time, I try not to think too far into the future either,” Khan adds, noting the will to create involves staying fully present in the moment. “I definitely make work to shut out the pain. I feel really lucky that I have it to get me through the day to day.”

Artist Baseera Khan's "Reflection," 2019

Artist Baseera Khan’s “Reflection,” 2019

(Courtesy of the artist and Simone Subal Gallery)

It’s a pain the artist saw firsthand as a longtime resident of New York City. As the coronavirus ripped through the metropolis during its ferocious early days, Khan had a grim firsthand look.

“The first months of the pandemic were pretty scary for a New Yorker,” Khan says. “You’d look at Hart Island and all of those pine boxes piled on top of each other. 500,000 Americans are not with us anymore after just a year. That number is pretty big, and I think all of us are going through dissociation.”

Khan explains that the reaction to that void is not only to create, but to employ other disciplines in tandem.

“For me, there’s always been an aspect of my practice based on research, reading, education and endurance,” Khan says. “I’m lucky that I have the practice that I have when I’m making work. I feel like I’m doing something about a problem instead of trying to find a place where I can hide in fantasy.”

It’s that catharsis that’s on full display in Encinitas, the trademark of which is Khan’s series of “Psychedelic Prayer Rugs.” With materials imported from India, the series largely focuses on Khan’s Muslim background and its relationship with the world, among other themes. In addition, also on display are Khan’s series of introspective collages, including the 2019 work “Reflections,” which weave together drawings and text, both handwritten and typed.

But just because Khan’s enjoying the spotlight doesn’t mean they’re resting on their laurels. In fact, it’s quite the contrary.

“I’m currently reading ‘Flesh of My Flesh’ by the author Kaja Silverman,” Khan says of the book that is spurring them to think of ways both
Western philosophy and psychology are largely male identifying. Khan can’t help but ask a question.

“Why do women think that men are more legitimate? A lot of people carry their pain and repeat it to others,” Khan says, as the next project begins to perhaps form. “I’m trying to figure that out on my own terms.”

LeDonne is a freelance writer.

Artist Baseera Khan's "Lunar Countdown," 2017

Artist Baseera Khan’s “Lunar Countdown,” 2017

(Courtesy of the artist and Simone Subal Gallery)

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